Friday, October 08, 2010

I R doin it rong

Yet another update: The article appears in full here: http://fledgelingskeptic.com/2010/10/07/the-dawkinsplaitt-dilemma/?blogsub=confirming#subscribe-blog

Apparently the author means it. How exciting.

UPDATE: the article never appeared on the site and now it's been removed from the newsfeed. Perhaps it was posted by mistake. I must say I'm pleased that the JREF decided not to post it, not because I don't happen to agree with the article but because it shows a deplorable lack of skeptical thought.

UPDATE 2: I've pasted the full text of the article below. I don't feel entirely comfortable about it, since the original posting might have been an error, but my post doesn't make much sense without access to the original article.

So I've posted it with the caveats that:
1. The JREF didn't officially publish it so don't think of it as a reflection on that organisation.
2. The article might have been submitted in error, unfinished, and the author might not have intended for it to be read in this form.

Having said that, it did go out on a public feed and my comments stand as the article appeared.
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There’s a piece on the JREF Swift feed (but it doesn’t seem to be on the site yet, I think they’ve screwed up the access control) by Maria Myrback called The Dawkins/Plaitt [sic] Dilemma. 

It presents an accomodationist view of religion (which I don’t have a problem with) and tells all non-accomodationists that we’re doing it wrong (which I most certainly do have a problem with).  It’s odd that accomodationists always seem to feel the need to do this: the over-preoccupation with tone – and particularly with other people’s tone – is quite nauseating and I wish they’d stop it.  If you must give unearned respect to silly beliefs solely on the grounds that they are silly beliefs then go right ahead.  I don’t mind at all.  But don’t insist that those of us who don’t are harming the cause of skepticism.  First, you never cite any evidence at all that this is the case and second, you don’t get to tell everyone what the atheist cause is (if such a thing even exists).  The article concerns a quote attributed to Richard Dawkins, which on the face of it seems to be urging atheists to ridicule the religious:

On Wednesday night, DJ Grothe posted the following quote from Richard Dawkins on Facebook; "Atheists should not be abusive of believers. Instead, we should ridicule them.".  I do not know the context of this quote and I would appreciate it if anyone who was actually there could expand on it. Dr. Dawkins said this during his interview with Michael Shermer at an event at Cal Tech.

I can’t find a source, but I remember Dawkins saying something similar in a talk.  He was talking about ridiculing silly religious ideas rather than ridiculing individuals for holding those ideas.  The distinction is rather important.  But out of context, it might seem like a call for Ad Hominem attack.

Myrback asks:

Does ridicule really work?

and goes on to state (without evidence of any kind) that it doesn’t.  But she misses a rather important point.  Work for what, exactly?  For convincing people who are deeply invested in beliefs?  It does indeed sound implausible that ridicule will change these people’s minds.  But who says this is the only aim of ridicule?  Who says these are the people we’re necessarily trying to reach? 

His [Phil Plait in his Don’t be a Dick speech] point was that when people feel they are being insulted, they tend to shut out logical arguments and revert to a defensive stance. Nobody enjoys being ridiculed for beliefs whether they are deeply held or not. Usually what happens is the person who feels insulted and attacked ends up clinging to that belief even harder than before. They also walk away with the idea that all skeptics are jerks. No one wins in that scenario.

Whether anyone wins depends on what the game is.  I think the believer might consider it a win: she comes away with a stronger faith than before, isn’t that a win from her point of view? 

If the game is ‘convert the believer’ then I agree that we probably won’t have a winner here.  But what if we’re playing a different game? 

In my experience, many people just don’t think about religion all that much but they are brought up in the tradition of a religion and have a tendency to respect religion, even if they don’t believe it themselves.  There are also a lot of fence-sitters who vaguely believe in religion but have their doubts.  By ridiculing religion, perhaps some of these people will think “Hey, you know what?  This stuff is ridiculous!”

Don’t we have winners in this scenario?

Also note the third sentence in that quote:

Usually what happens is the person who feels insulted and attacked ends up clinging to that belief even harder than before.

Usually?  How could any skeptic make a comment like that without evidence?  It’s hidden within some other points, so it could easily sail past the radars of those less pedantic than I, but if we strip out the context – as Myrback does with Dawkins’ quote – it’s an astonishing statement.

But not as astonishing as what she says next:

The attitude that believers should be ridiculed is divisive and harmful to our cause as a group.  If the goal is to build and expand our skeptical community, using Ad Hominem attacks only drives potential skeptics away.

First, let’s deal with the ‘Ad Hominem’ part.  I think this is a bit of a strawman.  I don’t think it’s what Dawkins is advocating and I don’t think there’s as much of it around as accomodationists like to suggest.  When they have to hunt so hard and take quotes out of context to get a borderline case, you have to wonder if something’s up.  I’m prepared to agree that Ad Hominem attacks are not generally helpful, but the question wasn’t “Do Ad Hominem attacks work?” it was “Does ridicule work?” so let’s get back to that topic and rephrase the statement as:

The attitude that believers should be ridiculed is divisive and harmful to our cause as a group.  If the goal is to build and expand our skeptical community, using ridicule only drives potential skeptics away.

There is not the slightest bit of evidence that this is true.  If it’s done skilfully, might it not show people that atheists are far from the humourless blobs they are so often made out to be?  Couldn’t it get people thinking about their tacit acceptance of religion’s role in our societies?  Couldn’t it persuade some fence-sitters to jump off in our direction?

I think it’s perfectly safe to say that it could do all these things.  Would that lead to the creation of more or fewer skeptics than a more accomodationist approach?  I’ve no idea and – crucially – neither does anyone else, including Myrback.  So it’s fairly astonishing that Myrback tosses it out as a fact.

Instead, we as a group need to consider the possibility that the person you are getting ready to call a moron may not ever have been exposed to critical thinking.

We’re all over the place here.  We’ve moved from ridiculing religion to Ad Hominem attacks to calling people morons.  Is Myrback really suggesting that Richard Dawkins urges atheists to call believers morons?  It’s nothing more than subtle straw-manery.

Education is the answer, not ridicule. Asking someone “Have you thought it could be this?” instead of calling names is so much more productive.

Again, no evidence, just a bald assertion of truth.  But what concerns me most is the idea that there is an answer.  Myrback can’t even seem to agree on a question, so a single answer seems implausible at best.  Why isn’t there room for lots of different answers?  And lots of different questions?  Why must we toe some kind of party line?  Why must we share goals, ideologies and methods?  We’re a diverse bunch and I personally consider that a strength.  A united front isn’t always the best approach.  Sometimes it’s better to divide and conquer.

Myrback does go on to concede that ridicule has it’s place, but she goes on to state – again, without the slightest bit of evidence – that the ridicule approach has only a “minimal level of success” (whatever that’s supposed to mean, surely the minimal level of success is zero) and continues:

when we go after the idea and not the person, we have the potential to create a meaningful dialog where change actually has the potential to take place.

Again, Myrback is confusing ridicule with personal attack.  I – and Dawkins – advocate ridiculing ideas rather than people.  Can you really see Dawkins saying “you’re a moron because you believe in god?”  If you can, I’d suggest you haven’t heard him talk very much or read a single piece of his writing on religion.

Some of Myrback’s points are good ones.  Understand believers.  Adapt your strategy accordingly.  Have a strategy.  All very good – and very obvious – points.  And yet she’d have us believe that some strategies ought to be off limits, that some methods of skepticism are inherently harmful and that we shouldn’t be in the club unless we toe the party line.

Maria, you need to examine your own skepticism as it seems sadly lacking.  At least, it is not evident in this article.  You’ve decided without a shred of evidence ought is is and you expect every skeptic to do the same.  Are you serious?


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Full text of the article

On Wednesday night, DJ Grothe posted the following quote from Richard Dawkins on Facebook; "Atheists should not be abusive of believers. Instead, we should ridicule them.". I do not know the context of this quote and I would appreciate it if anyone who was actually there could expand on it. Dr. Dawkins said this during his interview with Michael Shermer at an event at Cal Tech.

As a stand-alone comment it, bring up an issue that has had many people in the skeptical community at odds for some time now.

Does ridicule really work?

At TAM 8 this past July, Phil Plaitt gave his now famous “Don’t Be A D!ck” speech. He posed the following question, asking for a show of hands, “How many of you came to skepticism because someone called you a moron?” A few people did raise their hands in the affirmative but it was a very small group.

His point was that when people feel they are being insulted, they tend to shut out logical arguments and revert to a defensive stance. Nobody enjoys being ridiculed for beliefs whether they are deeply held or not. Usually what happens is the person who feels insulted and attacked ends up clinging to that belief even harder than before. They also walk away with the idea that all skeptics are jerks. No one wins in that scenario.

The attitude that believers should be ridiculed is divisive and harmful to our cause as a group. If the goal is to build and expand our skeptical community, using Ad Hominem attacks only drives potential skeptics away.

Instead, we as a group need to consider the possibility that the person you are getting ready to call a moron may not ever have been exposed to critical thinking. Their ideas seem perfectly plausible to them because they may not have been taught that what they saw was really a weather balloon or that there is such a thing as sleep paralysis. They may not know what pareidolia is or that the autonomic nervous system makes them twitch when they’re dowsing for water.

Education is the answer, not ridicule. Asking someone “Have you thought it could be this?” instead of calling names is so much more productive. Engage them in conversation about their belief. Pose questions that will get them to think about other possible answers and then let them come to their own conclusion. Sometimes they come back later and thank you.

That being said, ridicule does have a place. Using humor to diffuse a tense situation can point out the ridiculousness of a belief. A joke has the potential to plant seeds of doubt in someone who is ready to hear it. A wonderful example of using humor to ridicule a belief can be seen here where people at this year’s ComicCon put on a counter-protested against the Westboro Baptist. Church protestors.

Penn & Teller have also had success with an In-Your-Face approach on their Showtime program, Bullshit. That show is one of the reasons I’m a skeptic. They have a no-nonsense tack to pseudo science and quackery. They also use tastelessness and humor to diffuse a tense situation. But lets face it; their approach is much more like a kick to the groin than a pat on the back. It can be (and has been) off-putting to viewers whose beliefs have been called into question. The difficulty with a TV show is that, aside from the P&T message boards, there is no one there to answer questions that might crop up during the show.
While the ridicule approach does have a minimal level of success, when we go after the idea and not the person, we have the potential to create a meaningful dialog where change actually has the potential to take place.

Take the time to understand, also, that everyone is at a different point in the exploration of skepticism. We’re overcoming millions of years of evolution by learning to think critically. Our brains simply aren’t wired that way. Learning new ways of thinking is difficult and when cognitive dissonance enters the picture, there can be actual, physical discomfort along with the emotional and mental stress of walking away from long-held beliefs.
Patience, education and humor are tools that we might consider adding to our skeptical toolbox. It takes patience to educate people who have not been exposed to or are new to critical thinking. Have a strategy in mind before engaging in a debate over a belief. George Hrab has an excellent one. When confronted with pseudoscience, he asks, “Really? And how does that work?”. Engage them. Get them to explain the belief. Asking for an explanation gets the person to think about what they are proposing especially if you gently point out other possibilities by asking “What if…?”. You probably won’t get them to change their mind during the discussion and that shouldn’t be the goal. Even though you’re probably right, this isn’t about being right. It’s about planting a seed.

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